(First published January 2016 at wendypillar.co.uk)
I’m going to tackle a thorny subject that’s pretty important to me – losing weight. I have to add a disclaimer that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. My qualifications on the subject come from extensive reading over many years (including everything published in the International Journal of Obesity for 10 years for my day job!), and trying out ideas on myself, which resulted in losing 3 stone which, more importantly, has stayed off. There’s a huge amount of diet information about and most of it is nonsense. If it was any good, we’d be a slim, healthy nation, and we’re plainly not that. On the whole, diets are great for getting rich, and lousy for losing weight. If I can condense my years of research into 1000 words, and it helps shorten someone else’s search, that’s great, but if you follow my advice and drop dead, bear the above in mind and don’t even think of suing me!
First of all, diets don’t work, they only make you fatter. Diets don’t work, they only make you fatter. Yes, I know, I just said that, but it’s worth saying twice. Diets have a simple, apparently obvious, logic – cut the calories going in and burn the fat off – but for a number of reasons they don’t work in practice. (At least they work the first time, but the weight will go back on and they work less well each time you try.) The main reason is because they try to lose the weight too quickly by cutting calories too drastically. Your body has a ‘set point’ and built-in mechanisms to keep your weight stable. If you put on a few pounds over Christmas, it’s pretty easy to lose them in January. By the same token, lose a stone in a month, and your body will fight you to put it back on, and once you start fighting your own body, you’re screwed. You probably spent 10 years putting the weight on gradually, and it has to come off gradually too, probably over 2 years or more. That way your ‘set point’ comes down too and the weight will stay off. That seems an inconvenient truth, and a long road when you want to be ‘bikini body ready’ this summer, but try and lose it too quickly and, whether it works in the short term or not, in 5 years you’ll more than likely be heavier than you are now, whereas by losing it slowly (1 kg per month), in 5 years’ time, you could easily be up to 5 stone lighter.
The human body is badly adapted for living in an environment with abundant food because, for all of its evolution except the last few decades, starvation has been the big threat to survival. In much of the world, it still is. So it is very well equipped to deal with starvation. Cut your calorie intake in half and your body will think you are in a famine and go into survival mode, reducing your metabolism and halting long-term repair functions (which has serious repercussions if you spend half your life on a diet) to preserve your fat stores, and even worse, making you really hungry and obsessed with food to increase your motivation. This might work in the Serenghetti when a bit more foraging might turn up some good roots, but in a supermarket full of junk food you are trying not to eat, it’s a disaster. And it’s calorie-dense foods you’ll be after too; no one ever craved carrot sticks! Add in the ubiquitous processed food industry’s magically addictive combination of fat and sugar that does not exist in nature (ice cream, doughnuts, cake, biscuits, chips, etc.!) and triggers receptors in your brain more like cocaine does than proper food, and the odds are really stacked against you. There lies the road to binge eating, shame, guilt and a wrecked psychological relationship with food. This is why diets put on weight, not reduce it.
The way to sustainably lose weight is to (1) make an honest assessment of what you really eat, by keeping a diary of all your food and drink intake for about 3 weeks. Then (2) review it and find your worst food habits, in terms of calories and health, and cut back a bit. If you have a takeaway every Friday, have one every other Friday. If you have four roast potatoes on Sunday, have three. If you have three chocolate bars a week, have two. Make small changes for life, not drastic changes for a few months. Don’t give up all your favourite foods, don’t cut out whole food groups and don’t adopt bizarre eating habits that are different from those of your family. If you can cut back to the point where you lose 1–2 kg a month, job done, just keep it up. (3) After a few months, the weight loss will tail off and you will need to make a few more changes. By this point, though, your earlier changes will be established eating habits, and it won’t be a big issue. Food preferences are only habits, and if you change your practices a little in the direction of healthy eating, that is what you will come to prefer – honest! You can’t go from being a take-away queen to being all wheatgrass juice and quinoa overnight, but you can make huge changes a small step at a time, and each one carries big long-term benefits.
Tackle the emotional reasons why you overeat, with a counsellor if necessary. If, like me, you eat to cheer yourself up, comfort yourself, reward yourself, celebrate, and so on, there are other ways to do these things, I have eventually found!
And that’s all really. Gradually move your diet away from processed food towards natural, home-cooked food. Avoid diet books and programmes like the plague, and realise that most information about diets and healthy eating is deeply flawed, even that coming from doctors and similar sources. The only really uncontroversial pieces of advice about healthy eating that aren’t prone to changing with fashion are (1) eat amounts in proportion to the amount of energy you use, (2) eat as varied a diet as possible, (3) eat lots of fruit, salad and veg, in any form, (4) sugar (or simple carbs like white flour), fat and salt mixed together are dangerously addictive and best gradually reduced and eliminated, and (5) avoid all processed food – if it has a label on it, even if the label carries health claims, be deeply suspicious of it.
And there it is, 20 years’ research in 1000 words, more or less!